The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 3, 2013

WVU season could hinge on the men in the middle

At the Big 12 Media Days in Dallas, Texas, last month, West Virginia University play-by-play voice Tony Caridi was approached by former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

The former Buckeye running back, now a college football analyst for Sirius-XM Radio, didn’t ask about who would be replacing Geno Smith at quarterback or if the defense was ready to show some improvement. George only wanted information on the Mountaineer running game.

“He said, ‘Let me fill you in on something,’” Caridi remembered, relaying the story Friday night at a United Way of Southern West Virginia fundraiser in Summersville. “’This offense is only going to work if it can run the football.’”

George’s statement makes sense, and it’s not just because he understands the position better than most. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen’s offenses have re-written the Mountaineer record books over the past couple of seasons, but they’ve struggled on third-and-short or fourth-and-short. Numerous times, WVU has tried to play power football to pick up a few feet, and more often than not it’s led to a headset-throwing tirade from Holgorsen after the play was stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage.

“In the Big 12, you just can’t afford to do that,” said Caridi. “There are too many good offenses. You can’t just give them the ball. They’re going to make you pay.”

Heading into the 2013 campaign, WVU seems set at running back.

Back are Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, both of whom have had 200-yard rushing games in their careers, and added to the mix are Dreamius Smith, a junior college running back who chose the Mountaineers over Oklahoma State and Kansas Sate, and freshman Wendell Smallwood, who has shown plenty of speed and quickness in the early going.

Then, of course, there’s Houston transfer Charles Sims, who was chosen in the preseason as the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

“I think there’s a lot of depth there,” said Caridi. “And there are different types of backs. There are fast guys, big guys, a little bit of everything.”

But as George knows well, running the football is as much about the guys opening up the holes as it is the ones running through them.

“I think the success of this team is going to depend a lot on the offensive line,” said Caridi. “That’s the big question.”

WVU seems fairly set at the tackle spots. Redshirt-junior Quinton Spain is in the best shape of his life, and he performed so well in the spring and the offseason that Holgorsen took him to Big 12 Media Days, having him serve as one of the faces of the program. Caridi said he believes the 6-foot-5, 335-pound tackle is a future pro.

“He has matured,” said Holgorsen. “When I first got here, he wasn’t a starter for the first year, but he has really improved himself. He was one of our vocal leaders and was in really good shape.”

Curtis Feigt, the other tackle, has also received high praise from the coaching staff. The redshirt-senior has slimmed down to a more manageable weight and is playing as well as he’s ever played.

“I lost a little bit of weight,” he said Friday. “It was mainly adjusting my diet and watching what I was eating. During the summer and winter workouts, it was coming in extra and doing a little bit more cardio. It was a mutual interest, because I felt that I could be able to move a little bit better when I lost a little bit of weight, and it showed in the spring.”

The interior guys, though, are a major question.

Gone is center Joe Madsen, who started 50 games during his Mountaineer career and signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Also out of the mix are guards Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins. Braun was signed by the Miami Dolphins on Saturday, while Jenkins is getting a shot with the Seattle Seahawks.

Coming out of the spring, Tyler Orlosky was listed as the first-team center, with Marquis Lucas and Mark Glowinski listed as the guards. Pat Eger and Russell Haughton-James were listed as prominent backups on the interior.

So far, Lucas, a redshirt-sophomore from Miami, Fla., seems to have made the biggest impression on the coaches in trying to replace a pro at his position.

“It’s definitely clear that it’s very important to him right now,” said new offensive line coach Ron Crook, a Parkersburg native brought in from Stanford to help bring the toughness that the Cardinal displays to Morgantown. “You can tell with his approach, mentally and physically, and with the gains he’s made over the summer. He’s had a great work ethic all year. He’s definitely a guy we’re expecting big things out of this year.”

Crook said nobody’s job is set in stone, but he’s happy with what he’s seen from all his guys so far.

“Everything has come along very well from what we’ve seen out of those guys in the summer,” he said. “They look bigger, they look stronger and they look more fit. They move well, and they’ve got more quickness to them and more agility.

“The guys did a great job buying into what we’ve been talking to them about and teaching them to do.”

— E-mail: chuffman

@register-herald.com.

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